Archive for the ‘Big Government’ Category

The Transportation Security Administration has become infamous over the years for things that it doesn’t allow on planes.

Consider these examples of the Keystone Cops in action.

Confiscating a plastic hammer from a mentally retarded man.

Detaining a woman for carrying breast milk.

Hassling a woman for the unexplained red flag of having sequentially numbered checks.

Demanding that a handicapped 4-year old boy walk through a metal detector without his leg braces.

Putting an 8-year old cub scout on the no-fly list.

o Stopping a teenager from flying because her purse had an image of a gun.

o Seizing raygun belt buckles and Kitty Cat keychains.

Though, to be fair, other governments are similarly brainless.

I was quite amused by this bit of news from Ireland.

When passing through security at the airport, a Minion fart gun…was seized from a young toddler and taken away. The security officers claimed it was a ‘threat’ and took the toy gun away from the child.

Just in case you think a “fart gun” is too realistic and that a potential terrorist might grab it from the child and use it to take over the plane, here’s a picture to put your mind at ease.

And let’s not forget that airport bureaucrats all over the planet are on guard against criminal toiletries. I’ve had obviously dangerous toothpaste and deodorant confiscated not only in the United States, but also at airports in seemingly sensible places such as Australia and Cayman.

But let’s be fair. The TSA gets a lot of attention for things it doesn’t allow on planes, so perhaps it is time to give the bureaucrats some attention for the things it does allow.

Unfortunately, as reported by Politico, the TSA apparently is better at blocking fake weapons rather than real weapons.

…news that the Transportation Security Administration failed to detect 67 of 70 mock weapons in a secret test shook the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees it, and led to renewed calls for the TSA to clean up its act. …Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican who used to chair the transportation committee, said the 95 percent failure rate is evidence of a sweeping conceptual failure. …“They’re spending billions of dollars on a huge screening bureaucracy,” he added. …the TSA also cannot publicly point to many significant attacks thwarted at airport gates, leading experts to insist that its protocols should be considered largely ineffective. Rafi Sela, president of international transportation security consultancy AR Challenges, said the agency’s nearly $8 billion budget is largely being misspent on a misguided model.

Great, we’re flushing $8 billion down the toilet on a system that does a bad job based on a bad methodology.

Heck, the bureaucrats can’t even stop the wrong people from getting through security.

A man with a stolen boarding pass got through airport security in Salt Lake City and checked in at a gate for a flight to California… Salata, who is on the sex offender registry in Utah, grabbed a boarding pass that a woman accidently left at a check-in kiosk and used it to get through a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint, said Craig Vargo, chief of airport police.

He was only stopped because the woman obtained another boarding pass.

Salata was detained when the woman who had left the pass checked in using a replacement ticket that had been uploaded to her phone.

The TSA tried to rationalize this goof by stating that at least he wasn’t able to smuggle any guns or bombs past security.

TSA spokeswoman Lori Dankers said an agent made a mistake in identifying Salata, but the man was properly screened to determine if he was carrying anything dangerous.

Gee, how reassuring.

Now that we’ve mocked the TSA for stopping harmless items and allowing potentially dangerous items (or people), let’s contemplate some actual solutions.

In previous columns, I’ve argued that it’s time to put the private sector in charge, citing the good work of Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz. And as Steve Chapman has explained, there were lots of benefits to the pre-TSA system.

Let’s now add to that list.

We’ll start with some passages from Jeff Jacoby’s column in the Boston Globe.

He starts by beating up on the TSA.

Fourteen years after the creation of the TSA, there is still no indication that the agency has ever caught a terrorist, or foiled a 9/11-type plot in the offing. Conversely, there are reams of reports documenting the inability of TSA screeners to spot hidden guns, knives, bomb components, and other dangerous contraband as they pass through airport checkpoints. It’s doubtful that anyone is still capable of being surprised by a fresh confirmation of the TSA’s incompetence… The Transportation Security Administration, which annually costs taxpayers more than $7 billion, should never have been created. The responsibility for airport security should never have been federalized, let alone entrusted to a bloated, inflexible workforce.

He then points out that there’s a better approach.

The airlines themselves should bear the chief responsibility for protecting planes and passengers at airports. After all, they have powerful financial incentives to ensure that flights are free of danger, while at the same time minimizing the indignities to which customers are subjected. Their bottom line would be at stake. The TSA feels no such spur. Effective defense against airline terrorism doesn’t require patting down grandmothers or confiscating eyedrops. It requires sophisticated counterterror intelligence (which is what stopped the 2006 liquid bomb plot), and it calls for passengers to be vigilant (which is what ultimately foiled the underwear and shoe bombers). The TSA supplies neither.

A column by Adam Summers in the Orange County Register reaches the same conclusion.

He starts with the indictment of the current system.

TSA’s performance has steadily declined. A 2002 USA Today report revealed that undercover agents got bombs and weapons through security about a quarter of the time. By 2007, the failure rate had increased to 75 percent. Since then, the TSA has increased the number of screeners from 30,000 to 46,000 and spent $550 million on new screening equipment and agent training, yet somehow it continues to get worse. …The TSA has also perpetuated – and even expanded – failed and unproven programs, such as the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques program, which seeks to weed out evildoers by looking for certain behavioral cues among passengers. The GAO…recommended shuttering the program. Nonetheless, the agency has spent roughly $1 billion on SPOT since 2007 and is defiantly moving forward to “enhance” the program.

And then points to a sensible solution.

The TSA has proven to be abusive, unaccountable and totally ineffective. To restore some sense of competency and accountability, the agency should simply be abolished, and security should be made the responsibility of private airlines and airports, which have a strong incentive to prevent their customers from being killed. Competition among private providers would also lead to adoption of the most efficient and effective security measures while still respecting travelers’ rights.

Wow, what a shocking conclusion. The private sector is more competent than the government. Knock me over with a  feather!

Let’s close with some humor (though the joke is on us). The column by Adam Summers mentioned TSA’s SPOT program, which even the Government Accountability Office has recognized as a wasteful failure.

Well, the folks at Reason have a very amusing video on the characteristics that might lead SPOT bureaucrats to identify you as a potential terrorist.

P.S. Check out this amazing picto-graph if you want more information about the failures of the TSA.

P.P.S. For more TSA humor, see this, this, this, this, this, and this.

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When people think about government regulation, it’s understandable that they focus on things that impact their everyday lives.

Most of us, for instance, are irked by government’s war against modern life. Bureaucratic pinheads in Washington think they have the right to plague us with crummy dishwashers, inferior light bulbssubstandard toilets, and inadequate washing machines.

But what matters more is the way that onerous regulation throws sand in the gears of the economy, slowing growth and undermining job creation. And no matter how you slice the data, there’s no escaping the conclusion that American competitiveness is suffocating because of red tape and regulation from Washington.

Here are some very depressing bits of information I’ve shared in the past.

So what’s President Obama’s plan to deal with this regulatory morass?

Well, he wants to make matters worse. I’m not joking. Here are some excerpts from a report in The Hill.

President Obama is moving to complete scores of regulations as he looks to cement key parts of his legacy… The White House quietly released its formal rulemaking schedule late last week, revealing the administration’s latest plans for regulations currently in the works at agencies across the federal government. …Obama has no intentions of slowing down the process during his final year in office. …Critics, however, say the President has already issued far too many burdensome regulations. …the administration has finalized about one rule a day since Obama took office and estimates the compliance costs associated with those rules to total about $700 billion.

What makes this so depressing is that the Mercatus Center has new research showing that the regulatory burden is especially harmful to entrepreneurs and small businesses.

Here are some of the findings from this new study.

…a 10 percent increase in the intensity of regulation as measured by the RegData index leads to a statistically significant 0.5 percent decrease in overall firm births. …regulation deters hiring overall. A 10 percent increase in regulation is associated with a statistically significant 0.9 percent decrease in hiring. …Regulation leads to a statistically significant reduction in hiring and firm births for firms overall and for small firms. …our results suggest that from 1998 to 2011, increased federal regulation reduced the entry of new firms by 1.2 percent and reduced hiring by 2.2 percent. That result implies that returning to the level of regulation in effect in 1998 would lead to the creation of 30 new firms and the hiring of 530 new employees every year for an average industry.

So who benefits from red tape?

Other than bureaucrats and lobbyists, the big winner is big business.

…we find that large incumbents are actually less likely to die when their industry becomes more regulated. That finding suggests that incumbents, in particular, benefit from increasing levels of regulation and provides support for the idea that incumbents might actively seek increasing regulation to deter entry and limit competition (consistent with capture theory).

The good news is that a growing number of people are recognizing the need to deal with excessive regulation.

I don’t think many people would accuse Professor Noah Smith of Stony Brook University of being a libertarian, yet he makes a strong case for regulatory relief in a recent Bloomberg column.

Republicans should stop focusing so much on taxes and devote more attention to deregulation. …Although it’s very difficult to measure the amount of regulation across the economy, there are more and more areas that are cause for concern. For example, the scope of occupational licensing, which economists mostly believe is a drag on growth, is startling, and seems to have no good reason behind it. …Another concern is environmental regulation…local development opponents are often able to use costly environmental reviews to block needed infrastructure. A third area is zoning. As the incentives for density have risen, zoning regulation has become an increasing burden on growth.

He lists additional items, such as the approval process at the FDA for new drugs and all the Byzantine red tape required by the Sarbanes-Oxley law, and he also makes the very important point that cost-benefit analysis is necessary since not all regulations are created equal.

So what’s the solution to this mess?

Research from the folks at Mercatus points to some possible solution.

First and foremost, cut the budgets for regulatory agencies. If there’s less money, there will be fewer bureaucrats with fewer resources.

Here’s a very persuasive chart from a Mercatus report showing the correlation between regulatory budgets and the burden of red tape.

By the way, notice how regulatory spending exploded during the Bush years. Yet another bit of data showing that statist Republicans can be even worse for the economy than statist Democrats.

But I’m digressing. Let’s now look at another potential way of reining in the regulatory state.

Another study from Mercatus looks at a policy in Canada that put an aggregate cap on red tape.

Canada recently became the first country in the world to legislate a cap on regulation. The Red Tape Reduction Act, which became law on April 23, 2015, requires the federal government to eliminate at least one regulation for every new one introduced. Remarkably, the legislation received near-unanimous support across the political spectrum: 245 votes in favor of the bill and 1 opposed.

The nationwide legislation was based on an experiment in British Columbia.

When the BC government first introduced the Reform Policy in 2001, two regulatory requirements had to be eliminated for every one introduced. …today the policy calls for eliminating one requirement for every new one introduced. …requiring regulators to…eliminate…regulatory requirements for every new one introduced represented a dramatic change in thinking about regulation in BC: It put the onus on the government to…reduce the total amount of regulation.

And this policy apparently was very successful.

There is no question that BC’s economic performance improved markedly after 2001 in contrast to the “dismal decade” of the 1990s. The province went from being one of the worst performing in the country to being among the best. …economic growth in BC was 1.9 percentage points below the Canadian average between 1994 and 2001 but 1.1 percentage points above the Canadian average between 2002 and 2006. BC’s real GDP growth was lower than Canada’s as a whole in six of the nine years between 1992 and 2000, but BC’s GDP grew faster than Canada’s every year between 2002 and 2008.

What’s the key takeaway lesson?

Well, just as a spending cap is the right approach to fiscal policy, a regulatory cap also is the right way to deal with red tape.

…a hard cap on the total amount of regulatory requirements…has forced a discipline that did not previously exist, a discipline that has helped change the culture within government to one where regulators see their job as focusing on the most important rules.

Gee, what a radical idea. Requiring the folks in Washington to set priorities and make tradeoffs!

P.S. I guess we can add regulatory reform to our good-things-we-can-learn-from-Canada collection, along with spending restraint, corporate tax reform, bank bailouts, reducing double taxation, and privatization of air traffic control. Heck, Canada even has one of the lowest levels of welfare spending among developed nations.

P.P.S. Since we just reviewed research on how big corporations can benefit by supporting regulations that will disproportionately hurt their small competitors, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that some of those same big companies support tax hikes that will be especially damaging to small businesses.

P.P.P.S. While I suspect America wins the prize for worst regulatory agency and most despicable regulatory practice, Japan almost surely wins the prize for the oddest regulation.

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Shortly after Obamacare was enacted, I started writing about groups victimized by the law. But after highlighting how children, low-income workers, and retirees were disadvantaged by government-run healthcare, I soon realized that I wasn’t saying anything new or different.

Heck, Obamacare has been such a disaster that lots of people have been writing lots of good articles about the law’s failure and how various segments of the population are being unjustly harmed.

So I chose a different approach. I decided to identify groups that deserve to suffer because of the law. Or at least to highlight slices of the population that are not very deserving of sympathy.

Some politicians and staffers of Capitol Hill, for instance, are very upset about the prospect of being subjected to the law that they inflicted on the rest of the country. Gee, my heart breaks for them.

The bureaucrats at the IRS are agitated about the possibility of living under Obamacare, even though the IRS got new powers as a result of the law. How sad, cry me a river.

Professors at Harvard University, including many who supported Obamacare, are now upset that the law is hurting them. Oh, the inhumanity!

Now we have another group to add to this list. And this group is definitely in the deserve-to-suffer category.

That’s because we’re going to look at the big insurance companies that supported Obamacare, but now are squealing because the law isn’t working and they’re not getting the bailouts they were promised.

Here are some excerpts from a column by the irreplaceable Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner.

Until recently, the insurance giants saw Obamacare as a cash cow. They are now finding the law’s insurance marketplaces to be sickly quagmires causing billions in losses. …United Healthcare, the nation’s largest insurer, last week announced it was suffering huge losses in the exchanges. …The company forecast $700 million in losses on the exchanges. Fellow insurance giant Aetna also said it expected to lose money on the exchanges, and other insurers said enrollment was lower than they expected.

This seems like a feel-good story, very appropriate for the holidays. After all, companies that get in bed with big government deserve bad consequences.

But hold on to your wallet.

…Obamacare insiders — the wealthy and powerful operatives who alternate between top government jobs and top industry jobs — are hustling to find more bailout money for insurers. Republicans, if they are able to hold their ground in the face of lobbyist pressure, can block the bailout of Obamacare and its corporate clientele. …Obamacare included…a three-year safety net for insurers who do much worse than expected, paid for by an extra tax on insurers who do much better. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) had announced in October that insurers losses for 2014 entitled them to $2.87 billion in bailout payments… The problem is that super-profitable insurers did not pay nearly that much into the bailout fund.

This means there will be a fight in Washington. The Obama White House wants to bail out its corporate cronies. But there’s not enough money in the bailout fund.

And, thanks to Senator Rubio of Florida, the government can’t write checks out of thin air.

In late 2014, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., inserted into the so-called Cromnibus spending bill a provision that prohibited CMS from paying out more in risk corridor payments than it takes in. Profitable insurers — not taxpayers — must subsidize their less profitable peers.

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration oftentimes doesn’t care what the law says.

CMS announced last week that the government was going to find a way to pay the insurers their full bailout, anyway. …CMS also declared the unfunded portion of Obamacare’s initial promised insurer bailout was nevertheless an “obligation of the United States Government for which full payment is required,” even though at least under the current appropriation law it is illegal.

Tim outlines the incestuous relationship between Big Insurance and the Obama White House, all of which makes for nauseating reading.

But here’s the part that matters for public policy.

Rubio’s provision…expires along with the current government funding law on December 11. The Obamacare insiders, led by Slavitt and Tavenner, will fight to free up their bailouts and put the taxpayers on the hook for their losses caused by the law they supported.

In other words, we’re about to see – as part of upcoming appropriations legislation – if Republicans have the intelligence and fortitude to retain Rubio’s anti-bailout provision.

This should be a slam-dunk issue. After all, the American people presumably will not favor bailouts for corrupt health insurance corporations.

Especially since Obamacare is still very unpopular.

But what if Obama says “boo” and threatens to veto spending legislation if it doesn’t give him carte blanche bailout authority? Will GOPers be so scared of a partial government shutdown that they instantly surrender?

After all, when there was a shutdown fight in 2013, Republicans suffered a horrible defeat in the 2014 mid-term elections. Right? Isn’t that what happened?

Oh…wait…never mind.

P.S. Let’s not forget that there is one very tiny segment of America that has unambiguously benefited from Obamacare.

P.P.S. If you have any friends who work for the corrupt health insurance companies that are worried about a potential loss of bailout money, you can cheer them up this Christmas season with some great – and very appropriate – action figure toys.

P.P.P.S. Since we’re closing with sarcasm, here’s the federal government’s universal bailout application form.

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Several years ago, I shared some analysis suggesting that voting for Obamacare resulted in about 25 Democrats losing their congressional seats in 2010. And since more Democrats presumably lost seats in 2012 and 2014 because of that costly and misguided scheme, it surely seems that expanding government’s role in health care was a net negative for the Democratic Party.

Being a contrarian, however, I then suggested in my analysis that Obamacare nonetheless might be a net plus for Democrats, at least in the long run. Simply stated, as more and more people get ensnared in the quicksand of government dependency, that creates an ever-growing bloc of voters who may think that it is in their interest to support politicians who advocate for bigger government.

Let’s expand on that issue today.

Some of my Republican friends (I’m willing to associate with all sorts of disreputable people) have been making the point that President Obama has crippled the Democratic Party.

And they have a compelling case. If you compare the number of Democrats in the House and Senate when Obama took office with the amount that there are today, it’s clear that the President has been very bad news his party.

I suppose a defender of the President somehow might argue that the losses for congressional Democrats would have been more severe without Obama, but that would be a huge intellectual challenge.

Perhaps even more important, there’s been a giant loss of Democratic state legislators during Obama’s tenure, with more than 900 seats going from Democrat control to Republican control.

That’s resulted in a huge shift in the partisan control of state legislatures. Which, by the way, has very important implications for Congress because of the redistricting that takes place every 10 years.

So it seems like Republicans are in a good situation. They control Congress and they control most of the states.

And if GOPers pick up the White House in 2016, it surely seems like that would be the icing on the cake for those who say Obama was bad news for the Democrats.

But now let me give some encouraging news for my Democrat friends (like I said, I consort with shady people).

First, Republican control doesn’t necessarily mean a shift away from big government. Indeed, we saw just the opposite during the Bush years.

Second, even if small government-oriented Republicans controlled Washington after the 2016 election, that might not change the nation’s long-run trend toward more dependency.

These are some of the issues I explore in this CBN interview.

The most relevant point in the interview, in my humble opinion, was the discussion about one-third of the way through the interview. I talked about the “ratchet effect,” which occurs when the statists expand the size and scope of government a lot and good policy makers then get control and reduce it by only a small amount.

Stay in that pattern long enough and you eventually become Greece (which is why I emphasized in the interview the need to reverse this trend with big systemic changes such as genuine entitlement reform).

One final point. Pat gave me an opportunity to brag about the Cato Institute at the end of the interview. It is nice to work at a think tank that cares solely about policy and not about partisan labels. So we criticize big-government Republicans just as much as we criticize big-government Democrats.

No wonder we’ve been identified as America’s most effective think tank.

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Washington is a horribly corrupt city. The tax code is riddled with special favors for politically powerful interest groups. The budget is filled with handouts and subsidies for well-connected insiders. The regulatory apparatus is a playground for cronyism.

I’ve previously explained that shrinking the size and scope of government is the most effective way of curtailing corruption. Simply stated, people won’t try to get favors and politicians won’t have the ability to sell favors if government doesn’t have power to redistribute income and dictate behavior.

To be sure, this isn’t a recipe for zero corruption. There doubtlessly was corruption in the 1700s and 1800s when Washington was just a tiny fraction of its current size. But it’s a matter of scale. A smaller government means less opportunity for mischief.

Some folks argue that campaign finance laws would be an effective way of curtailing sleaze in Washington. And there are some compelling arguments for this approach.

After all, would we have unsavory examples of corruption like the Export-Import Bank if wealthy insiders from big companies weren’t able to generate buckets of campaign cash for politicians?

But let’s be realistic. So long as politicians have the power to provide subsidies for big business, they’ll have an incentive to offer those handouts. And companies will have an incentive to seek those handouts.

Campaign finance laws might cut back on one pathway to buy and sell favors, but the incentive to cut deals will still exist. Sort of like pressing down on one part of a balloon simply causes another part of the balloon to expand.

But, you may ask, isn’t it worth taking such steps in hopes of at least creating some roadblocks to graft in Washington.

Perhaps in theory, but let’s not forget that it’s very naïve to think that politicians will enact laws that reduce their power or weaken their chances of being reelected. That’s about as likely as burglars being in favor of armed homeowners.

As such, we actually should be concerned that new laws and rules somehow would be structured to make things worse rather than better.

That’s the message of this superb video from Prager University. Narrated by George Will, the video explains why so-called campaign finance rules are not the answer (unless, of course, the question is “how can we give more power to the entrenched political class?”).

Let me add something that wasn’t addressed in the video. Incumbent politicians like the idea of limiting campaign contributions because they start each election cycle with a giant advantage. They already are well known in their states or districts. They’ve already curried favor with voters by engaging in taxpayer-financed “constituent service.” They already get themselves in front of cameras at every opportunity when there’s a ribbon cutting for a new bridge or road project. And they’ve already built relationships with the power brokers in each community.

Challengers, for all intents and purposes, need to spend a lot of money – potentially millions of dollars depending on the electorate – simply to create a level playing field. But if there are laws that limit total spending or restrict contribution amounts, it makes it a lot harder to conduct a credible campaign.

No wonder incumbent politicians so often pontificate about “getting money out of politics.” What they’re really saying is “let’s make it impossible for anybody to threaten my reelection.”

The bottom line is that limits on campaign contributions and other restrictions on political speech make elections less fair.

And they don’t solve the bigger issue of graft, corruption, and sleaze. No wonder they’re willing to impose dozens – if not hundreds – of laws governing public malfeasance and campaign finance. They know that such rules are largely ineffective because much of what happens in Washington is legalized forms of corruption.

Which brings us back to the real issue. If you want less sleaze in Washington, reduce the size and scope of the federal government.

Everything else is window dressing.

P.S. The most pervasive form of corruption in Washington (and, sadly, in many other parts of America) is the moral corruption that exists when people think it’s perfectly acceptable to steal from their neighbors so long as 51 percent of the people approve of the theft. That’s why social capital is very important.

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Sometimes the best way to help the cause of freedom is to stop a bad idea. And that’s why I’m vociferously opposed to a value-added tax.

Here’s what I wrote today for National Review. I start by explaining that it’s a bad idea to give Washington a big new tax to finance a larger burden of government spending.

It’s especially good news that the United States has resisted the value-added tax (VAT), which is tempting because of its revenue-generating capacity. …Hostility to the VAT is justified by the European experience. Back in the mid 1960s, the burden of government spending in Europe was only slightly above the American level. But as VATs were implemented, the welfare state expanded, and now government consumes a much higher share of economic output on the other side of the Atlantic.

European politicians embraced the VAT because it’s the only way to finance leviathan-sized government.

…there’s a limit to how much revenue can be generated by an income tax. As honest leftists will admit (at least off the record), the Laffer Curve is real. …Indeed, income-tax revenues (personal and corporate) average less than 12 percent of GDP in OECD nations. …In other words, the only effective way to finance European-sized government is to have European-style taxation. Which is exactly why the Left desperately wants a VAT.

I then express dismay that a couple of very attractive candidates have inserted this pernicious tax in their otherwise good proposals.

…some conservatives think the VAT is an acceptable risk if it’s part of a bigger tax-reform plan. Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, for instance, both have proposals that would lower personal-income-tax rates, reduce double taxation of income that is saved and invested, and eliminate corporate income taxes and payroll taxes. …Paul and Cruz would offset some of the revenue loss by imposing VATs.

The two Senators actually have good plans, at least on paper. My concern is about what happens once either one of them left the White House.

…something that looks pretty on a blackboard might not be so appealing once you add the sordid reality of politics to the equation. To be blunt, unless there’s a magic guarantee that principled conservatives such as Rand Paul and Ted Cruz (and their philosophical clones) would always hold the presidency, a VAT would be a very risky gamble. …What happens in the future when a statist wins the White House? …Raising the VAT rate would be a comparatively simple option for our hypothetical left-wing president. And because it has such a broad tax base (all “value added” in the economy, including wages paid to workers), even small rate increase would generate a lot of revenue to finance bigger government. …And I’m sure this future statist president also would boost tax rates on the “rich” and also impose higher levels of double taxation.

Incidentally, any good tax reform plan can be distorted by bad politicians in the future. But the downside risk of a VAT is monumentally greater because of its revenue-generating capacity.

…there’s a downside risk to other types of tax reform. But it’s a matter of magnitude. If we did something like Ben Carson’s flat tax or the more incremental tax-reform plans of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, it’s obviously possible for a future leftist to undo those reforms, in which case we could degenerate back to the current system. That’s obviously bad news, but it’s not nearly as bad as what might happen with the Cruz and Paul plans. When the wrong politicians got back in charge, they’d restore all the bad features of the income tax and also use the VAT as a money machine to expand the welfare state. And when the dust settles, we’d be France.

I realize that some people won’t believe what I just wrote. Maybe you lean left and you’re used to dismissing my arguments. Or maybe you’re a huge fan of Rand Paul or Ted Cruz and you think I’m somehow trying to knock them down because of some sinister agenda.

So maybe you’ll be more persuaded when a left-leaning columnist reaches the same conclusion. Here is some of what Catherine Rampell just wrote for the Washington Post.

Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have a really compelling tax proposal. …an interesting, serious and provocative idea: a value-added tax. …The VAT is also one of the first proposals out of the International Monetary Fund’s bag of tricks for countries that need to raise money. …it’s good these candidates have given voice to The Tax That Dare Not Speak Its Name. There’s only so much revenue a country can wring out of an income tax system, particularly one as Swiss-cheesed as ours. A well-designed VAT could help get our fiscal house in order.

This must be some sign of harmonic convergence. We both recognize that Paul and Cruz are proposing a VAT, and we both understand that there’s a limit to how much money can be raised from an income tax, and we both concur that a VAT will give politicians a way of dramatically boosting the tax burden.

But we don’t really agree. Because I’m horrified about the prospect of a new tax whereas Ms. Rampell thinks the VAT would be good because she favors bigger government.

By the way, Catherine confirms one of the fears I expressed in my article. The VAT would actually lead politicians to make the income tax even worse because of their fixation on distributional issues.

The main downside of a VAT is that it hurts the poor more than the rich, because the poor spend a larger share of their incomes on basic necessities. There’s an easy way to counteract that problem, though: Just make the income tax system more progressive.

By the way, while she’s right that the VAT is a money machine for big government, I can’t resist pointing out a mistake in her column.

Unlike an income tax, it doesn’t discourage saving or working

No, that’s not true. One of the good features of a VAT (assuming all other taxes could be abolished) is that it would generate revenue in a way that minimizes the negative impact on incentives.

But it would still drive a wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption.

This is also the case for the flat tax. A “good” tax system is only “pro growth” in the sense that it does less damage than the current system.

Just in case you haven’t reached the point of VAT exhaustion, here’s my video explaining why the VAT is such a bad idea.

But if you don’t want to spend a few minutes watching a video, just keep this image in mind anytime sometime tells you we should roll the dice and adopt a VAT.

P.S. None of this suggests that Rand Paul and Ted Cruz should be rejected by voters. All candidates have some warts. I like the Jeb Bush tax plan, but I’m worried by his failure to take the no-tax pledge. I like the Marco Rubio tax plan, but I’m not a big fan of his big tax credits for kids. And I could come up with similar complaints about other candidates.

All I’m saying is that Paul and Cruz have one part of their agenda that should be jettisoned.

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Three years ago, I shared a chart about the fiscal burden of the welfare state, calling it the picture that says a thousand word.

It’s astounding, after all, that taxpayers spend so much money on means-tested programs and get such miserable results.

Indeed, if we took all the money spent on various welfare programs and added it up, it would amount to $60,000 for every poor household.

Yet the handouts for poor people generally (but not always) are way below that level, so where does all the money go?

Well, this eye-popping flowchart (click to enlarge) from the House Ways & Means Committee is one way of answering that question. As you can see, there are dozens of programs spread across several agencies and departments.

In other words, a huge chunk of anti-poverty spending gets absorbed by a bloated, jumbled, and overlapping bureaucracy (and this doesn’t even count the various bureaucracies in each state that also administer all these welfare programs).

This is akin to a spider web of dependency. No wonder people get trapped in poverty.

Fortunately, we have a very simple solution to this mess. Just get the federal government out of the business of redistributing income. We already got very good results by reforming one welfare program in the 1990s. So let’s build on that success.

P.S. Leftists generally will oppose good reforms, both because of their ideological belief in redistribution and also because overpaid bureaucrats (who would have to find honest work if we had real change) are a major part of their coalition. But there are some honest statists who admit the current system hurts poor people.

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